This is all just a misunderstanding," the man insisted from inside his cell.
"You're making a mistake," the woman with him agreed.
Johun took a deep breath, then let it out in a long, weary sigh. He'd arrived back on the Fairwind with his two prisoners over an hour earlier. His request for an immediate audience with Farfalla had been denied, as the acting general had been otherwise preoccupied with the cleanup efforts on Ruusan. So Johun had taken his prisoners down to the flagship's lower deck and placed them in a holding cell to wait. With nothing better to do, he'd decided to take a seat in a nearby chair and wait with them.
The young Jedi was now strongly regretting that decision.
"We were never part of Kaan's army," the woman called out to him from behind the bars of their cell. "We're just farmers."
"Farmers don't wear battle armor and carry weapons," Johun said, pointing to the corner of the room where the clothing and equip-ment confiscated from the mercenaries had been piled atop a small table.
"That stuff's not ours" the man explained. "We ... we just found it. We were out for a walk this morning and ... we came across this deserted camp. We saw all this equipment lying around and, uh, we thought it would be fun to dress up like soldiers."
The Republic guard standing watch over the prisoners with Johun barked out a laugh at the pathetic lie. Johun just closed his eyes and reached up to rub his temples. Back on Ruusan the prisoners had been all too eager to confess to their crimes. Fresh from their encounter with the unnamed Sith Lord, they had been temporarily scared straight. Now that they were safely away from the planet's surface, however, the sobering reality of a rive-to-ten-year sentence on a Republic prison world was making them recant their earlier testimony.
"What about the others?" Johun asked, hoping to catch them in their own web of lies. "Your friends who died in the attack. Were they farmers, too?"
"Yes," the man replied, even as the woman said, "We didn't really know them."
"Well," the young Jedi asked coolly, "which is it?"
The two mercenaries gave each other a long, sour look, but it was the woman who finally answered. "We just met them this morning. At the Sith camp. They said they were farmers like us, but they might have been lying."
"Lying? Really?" Johun asked sarcastically. "Hard to imagine why anyone would do that."
The guard gave another short laugh. "You two should take this act on tour" he said. "You know... if you survive prison."
The man in the cell seemed about to say something biting in reply, but he held his tongue when his companion gave him a sharp elbow in the ribs. At that moment one of Farfalla's envoys poked her head into the room.
"The general can see you now," she said to Johun.
Johun leapt from his chair to follow her.
"Hey, tell him to let us out of here," the man called out after him. "Don't forget about us!"
No chance of that, Johun thought. To the guard he said, "Keep an eye on them. And don't believe anything they say."
The envoy led him on a long, winding journey through the various levels of the Fairwind. The holding cells were located in the bottommost depths of the great ship's hull; he was meeting Farfalla on the command deck at the top. Along the way they passed hundreds of faces Johun recognized, fellow Jedi and soldiers who had fought by his side during the campaign. Most gave a curt nod or a quick wave as they went by, too busy with their own duties to engage in any kind of conversation.
There were also many faces Johun didn't recognize: refugees from Ruusan. Many were evacuees brought here in the mad rush to escape the thought bomb, preparing to head back down to the surface to try to rebuild their lives. Others were men and women whose homes or families had been completely destroyed by the war; for them there was nothing to go back to but the painful memories of what they had lost. Farfalla had arranged for those people who didn't wish to return to Ruusan to be given transport back to the Core Worlds of the Republic, where they could find a fresh start away from the horrors they had witnessed.
So many people, Johun thought as he silently followed his guide. So much suffering. And it will all be for nothing if any of the Sith manage to escape.
When they reached the command deck, the envoy led him to Farfalla's personal quarters. She knocked once on the closed door, and a voice from the ether side said, "Come in."
She placed a hand on the console and the door slid open, then she nodded at Johun. He stepped forward and into the room, and he heard the door whoosh closed behind him.
The room was larger than he had expected, and decorated in the lavish style for which Valenthyne Farfalla was famous. A brightly colored rug of crimson and gold lay spread across the floor, and the walls were hung with works that would not have seemed out of place in the finest art galleries of Alderaan. On the far side of the room was an enormous four-poster bed, the frame fashioned from the timber of a wroshyr tree-a gift from Wookiee tribal leaders on Kashyyyk. The covers and pillows were woven from shimmering silks of yellow and red, and each of the massive bedposts was emblazoned with a hand-painted mural depicting a major event from Farfalla's life: his royal birth, his acceptance into the Jedi Order, his ascension to the rank of Master, his famous triumph over the Sith forces on Kashyyyk. The general was sitting at an oversized desk in the corner, reviewing reports on a monitor built into the surface. "You disappoint me, young Padawan," he said as he flicked off the screen and turned in his seat to face Johun.
"I am sorry I disobeyed you, Master Valenthyne," he replied.
Farfalla stood up and crossed the room, his feet padding softly on the luxurious carpet. "That is the least of my concerns," he said, placing a heavy hand on the young man's shoulder. His eyes were dark and sunken, and his normally joyful expression was hidden under a mask of worry and fatigue.
'Trtanna," Johun said, hanging his head in shame at the memory of how he had used the Force to trick the pilot into allowing him to
join her crew.
"A Jedi does not use his powers to manipulate the rninds of his friends. Even if your motives are pure, it is an abuse of your position and a betrayal of the trust others put in us."
"I know what I did was wrong," Johun admitted. "And I will accept whatever punishment you feel is necessary to atone for what I did. But there is something more important that we need to talk about first."
Farfalla gazed into Johun's eyes, then let his hand drop. The Padawan thought he saw a flicker of disappointment cross the Master's face as he did so.
"Yes, of course," Farfalla said, turning and walking back to his desk. He reached down and flicked the monitor back on. "The report from those prisoners you captured."
"You've seen it?" Johun asked in surprise.
"I read all the reports," he answered. "It is a leader's responsibility to know what his followers are doing. More important, he must stop them from making rash or misguided decisions."
"You still don't believe any of the Sith survived the thought bomb," Johun guessed.
"I lack faith in the credibility of your sources," Valenthyne replied. "These mercenaries are, to put it bluntly, the scum of the galaxy. How do you know they aren't just telling you what you want to hear?"
"Why would they do that?"
Farfalla shrugged. "Maybe they think you will stand up for them. Get them better treatment as prisoners. A lesser sentence for their crimes. These people are opportunists. They will seek every advantage they can find. Lying is second nature to them."
"I don't think they were lying, Master," Johun said with a shake of his head. "If you saw them on the surface . . . they were terrified! Something terrible happened to them."
"This is war. Terrible things are a matter of course."
"What about the details of their account?" Johun pressed. "The red-bladed lightsaber? The Force lightning? These are the weapons of the dark side!"
"If they were soldiers in Kaan's army, they would be well versed in the tools the Sith use against their enemies. It would be easy for them to add these elements to any story they wanted to tell."
Clenching his jaw in frustration, Johun spat out a harsh accusation. "You just want to believe the Sith are gone forever! That's why you refuse to see what's right in front of us."
"And you want to believe the Sith still exist," Farfalla countered, though his voice echoed none of the anger in the Padawan's challenge. "You want to strike out against those who killed your Master. Your desire to avenge him has blinded you to the facts. If you were thinking clearly, you would see that there is one part of the story that calls the entire account into question."
Johun blinked in surprise. "You have proof they're lying?"
"It's right there in the report you filed," Farfalla informed him. "They claim that a Dark Lord of the Sith slaughtered their friends. But somehow they survived the encounter. How is that possible?"
"They... they escaped into the trees," Johun stammered, knowing how foolish the words sounded even as he said them.
"You are a Jedi," Farfalla admonished him. "You know the power of the Force. Do you really believe they could have escaped the wrath of a Sith Master simply by running into the forest?"
He would have hunted them down and butchered them like zucca pigs, Johun admitted to himself. "Maybe he wanted to let them live for some reason " he suggested, still unwilling to surrender the point.
"Why?" Farfalla asked. "If a Sith Lord survived the thought bomb, why would he leave witnesses behind who could expose him to his enemies?"
Johun had no answer for this. It didn't make any sense. But somehow he knew-he knew-the mercenaries were telling the truth.
"Johun," the general said, sensing his inner conflict. "You must be completely honest with yourself. Do you really believe we can trust these mercenaries?"
Johun thought back to the prisoners in the cell and the endless string of lies pouring from their mouths. He thought about his own warning to the guard watching over them: Don't believe anything they say. And Johun finally realized what a fool he'd been.
"No, Master Valenthyne. You are right. They can't be trusted." After a moment he added, "I... I would like to speak with Irtanna and Bordon when they get back. To apologize for what I did to them."
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Johun" Farfalla said with a wan smile. "We Jedi are not infallible. It is important that we stay humble enough to admit when we make a mistake.
"Unfortunately, apologizing in person will not be possible," he continued. "I have been summoned to Coruscant to meet with Chancellor Valorum. Since you obviously cannot be trusted to follow my instructions in my absence, you will be accompanying me as my aide."
The proclamation had been framed as a punishment, but Johun's heart leapt at the words. In effect, Master Valenthyne was offering to take him on and mentor him.
"I... thank you, Master," was all he could say. Not sure what else to do, he gave a short bow.
"It's what Hoth would have wanted for you," Farfalla said softly. Then, louder, "We'll leave as soon as I finish making the arrangements for others to take over command of the fleet while I'm gone."
"Why does the Chancellor want to meet with you so urgently?" Johun asked, suddenly curious.
"Now that the Brotherhood of Darkness has been defeated, the Galactic Senate wants to put an official end to this war. There is important legislation on the table that could change the face of the Republic forever. Valorum wants to discuss it with me before the Senate votes."
"And this legislation will affect the Jedi as well?"
"It will," Farfalla answered grimly. "In ways you cannot even begin to imagine."
* * *
Zannah's feet hurt. Her calves ached. Her thighs burned with every step. Yet somehow she ignored the pain and pushed herself to go on.
She'd been walking ever since Darth Bane's ship had disappeared over the horizon, leaving her alone once again. Her mission was clear: make her way to Onderon. To do that, she had to find a ship to get her off Ruusan. That meant finding other people. But Zannah had no idea where any other people might be, and so she had simply chosen a random direction and started walking.
She was too small to pilot the swoop bike Bane had used to whisk them across the landscape. At first that hadn't mattered: She'd used her newfound talents in the Force to propel herself along, running so fast that the world passed by her in a blur of wind and color. But while the Force may have been infinite, her ability to draw upon it was not. Her skills were still developing, and fatigue had set in quickly. She had felt her pace slowing as her strength ebbed, and though she tried to summon the power of the dark side again by tapping into her deep reserves of anger and hate, her exhausted will could only call up the faintest flicker of a response.
Now she'd been reduced to a tired little girl plodding across the war-torn Ruusan landscape. Yet she refused to surrender to despair, instead focusing all her energy on putting one foot in front of the other. It was impossible to say how long she continued her forced march-how many hours or kilometers she endured-before she was rewarded with what she sought: the sight of a shuttle in the distance.
Hope gave new life to her weary limbs, and she managed a clumsy, limping run toward the vessel. She could see people milling about the craft: a young woman, an older man, and two teenage boys. As she drew nearer the woman noticed her and called out to one of her companions.
"Bordon! Tell the boys we've found someone who needs help."
Minutes later Zannah found herself inside the vessel's cargo hold, sitting on a supply chest while wolfing down nutrition bars from a ration kit and chasing them with a piping-hot cup of chav. One of the boys had thrown a thick blanket over her shoulders, and the entire crew was now hovering protectively around her,
"I've never seen someone so small eat so much," the woman said with a laugh.
She didn't look like she'd come from Ruusan originally. She had dark skin and short black hair, and she wore a bulky padded vest under her jacket. There was also a blaster pistol strapped to her hip, making Zannah fairly certain she was a soldier of some type.
"What did you expect, Irtanna?" the older man said. In contrast to the woman, he looked like he was probably a native of Ruusan. He had broad shoulders, leathery skin, and a short brown beard. He reminded Zannah of Root, the cousin who had raised her as a little girl back on her homeworld of Somov Rit. "The poor thing's nothing but skin and bones. When was the last time you had a decent meal, girl?"
Zannah shook her head. "I don't know," she said around a mouthful of food.
She'd only accepted their offer of a meal out of politeness. Ever since she had arrived on Ruusan she'd been living on roots and berries, her body constantly on the edges of starvation. She'd been doing it for so long that she'd gotten used to the pangs of a perpetually empty stomach, adapting to the point that she was barely aware of her hunger. But the moment that first bite of real food hit her tongue, she remembered her appetite, and now her body was determined to make up for weeks of poor nutrition.
"Where are your parents?" the woman called Irtanna asked.
"They're dead," Zannah answered after a moment's hesitation, setting down what remained of the ration kit. The food was delicious; the simple physical pleasure of eating was a glorious sensation. But she couldn't allow herself to be distracted by it right now. She had to be very careful with what she told these people.
The man crouched beside her, bringing himself down to her eye level. When he spoke, his voice was soft and sympathetic. "Any other family? Brothers or sisters? Anyone?"
She answered with another shake of her head.
"A war orphan," Irtanna muttered sadly.
"My name's Bordon," the man told her, "This is Irtanna, and these are my sons Tallo and Wend. What's your name?"
Unwilling to reveal her true name, she hesitated for a second, "I'm ... Rain," she finally offered, giving them her childhood nickname.
"Rain? That's a funny name. Never heard one like that before," the older boy, Tallo, said. He looked to be about sixteen.
"There are lots of names you've never heard," Bordon chided his son sharply. Then, in a softer voice, he asked Zannah, "Are you hurt, Rain? Or sick? We have medicine if you need it."
"I'm okay. I was just hungry is all."
"Should we take her with us?" Irtanna asked.
Bordon kept his eyes on Zannah as he replied, "Why don't we ask her. Rain, do you want to come with us?"
"I have to go to Onderon," Zannah replied without thinking. As soon as the words were out of her mouth she regretted them.
"Onderon? Nothing on that rock but monsters and beast-riders, Tallo chimed in. "You must be pretty stupid if you want to go there."
"Hush, boy" Bordon snapped. "You've never been off Ruusan, so how would you know?"
"I heard people talking," Tallo replied. "Around the camps and stuff."
"You can't believe every tale you hear around a campfire," his father reminded him. "Now take your brother and go wait up in the front of the ship."
"Come on," Tallo grumbled, grabbing his younger sibling by the arm.
"That's not fair!" Wend protested as he was led away. "I didn't do nothing!"
"Why do you want to go to Onderon?" Irtanna asked once the boys were gone. "It's a very dangerous world. Not the kind of place for a little girl on her own."
"I won't be on my own. I... I have family there," Zannah lied. "I just need to find them."
Bordon rubbed his hand over his chin, tugging slightly at his beard. "It might be pretty hard finding them on a place like Onderon," he said. "Is there someone else we could contact for you? A family friend on Ruusan, maybe?"
"I have to go to Onderon," Zannah insisted.
"I see" the man said, then he stood up and turned to Irtanna. "Our young guest seems mighty determined to get off this world."
"We can't take you to Onderon," Irtanna said, "but we can take you with us when we leave Ruusan."
"Take me where?" Zannah asked, suspicious.
"We've got a whole fleet of ships orbiting the planet, Rain. You'll be safe up there. Well find someone to get you cleaned up and look after you."
"I can look after myself," she answered defiantly.
"Yes, I can see that," Bordon interjected. "But I bet it's lonely being all by yourself." When Zannah didn't answer he continued, "Tell you what-it's getting dark outside. Why don't we take you with us up to the fleet for now? Then tomorrow we can figure out what to do next.
"If you still want to go to Onderon, we'll see if we can help. But if you change your mind, maybe you could stay here on Ruusan with me and my boys for a while. At least until we find your family."
Zannah's mouth dropped open at his offer.
Bordon reached down and patted her gently on the shoulder. "It's okay," he said. "You don't have to answer right now. Just something to think about."
Managing a slight nod, Zannah resumed eating her meal, her mind still reeling.
"I'll go get us ready for takeoff" Irtanna said as she left, heading up toward the front of the vessel.
Bordon grunted his agreement, then spoke to Zannah once more. "I have to go up front to help Irtanna. You just stay back here and finish eating, okay?"
Zannah nodded again. There was something comforting about the way Bordon spoke to her. He made her feel safe and important at the same time. She watched him disappear through the door separating the supply hold from the cockpit.
"You just holler if you need anything," Bordon's voice called back to her.
A minute later the engines roared to life and the shuttle lifted up into the air, but Zannah barely noticed. Her brain was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. Part of her was silently screaming that she had couldn't just sit there-she had to do something nowl She couldn't let them take her back to the fleet. There were too many people there. Too many Jedi. Someone was bound to notice her special gifts and start asking questions. They'd find out about Darth Bane, and everything he had promised her-all the knowledge and power of the dark side-would be lost.
Yet another part of her wanted to go back to the fleet. Bane had warned that her apprenticeship would be a long and difficult struggle. She was tired of struggling. And Bane had abandoned her. Bordon, on the other hand, had offered her his home; he'd offered to let her be part of his family. What would be so wrong about simply accepting his offer? Bane had said she was the chosen heir to the legacy of the ancient Sith, but was that really what she wanted?
Before she could come up with an answer she heard a noise, and looked up to see Wend, the younger of Bordon's two sons, coming in from the cockpit to talk to her. She guessed he was somewhere around thirteen-only a few years older than she was.
"Papa says you don't have any family," he said by way of greeting.
Zannah didn't know what to say, so she only nodded.
"Did they die in the war?" Wend asked. "Did the Sith kill them?"
She shrugged, unwilling to elaborate in case she inadvertently gave away some detail that would expose her facade.
"My mother was a soldier," Wend told her. "She was very brave. She went to fight the Sith when they first came to Ruusan."
"What happened to her?" She only asked the question because it was expected and it would have seemed odd if she hadn't. She didn't want to do anything to draw unwanted attention to herself.
"She died at the Fourth Battle of Ruusan. Killed by the Sith. Papa says-"
"Wend!" came Bordon's voice from the cockpit. "Get back up here. Let Rain have some peace and quiet."
The boy gave her a shy smile, then turned and left her alone again with her thoughts. Thanks to his words, however, she'd made her decision.
Bordon had offered to take her in. He'd offered to make her part of his family. He was tempting her with a simple but happy life. But his words offered nothing except empty promises. Peace is a He.
What good were family or friends if you didn't have the strength to protect them? Bordon had lost his wife, and Tallo and Wend had lost their mother. When the Sith came they'd been powerless to save the one they most loved.
Zannah knew what it was like to feel powerless. She knew what it was like to have the things she valued above all else taken from her. And she had vowed to never let it happen again.
Bordon and his family were victims-slaves bound by the chains of their own weakness. Zannah refused to be a victim any longer. Bane had promised to teach her the ways of the dark side. He would show her how to unleash the power within and free herself from the shackles of the world.
Through power I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken!
The realization of what she was-the acceptance of her destiny-spurred Zannah into action. She tried to call upon the Force to give her strength, but she was still too exhausted from her previous exertions to use her talents. Undaunted, she began to rummage through the supply crates in the cargo hold, looking for something she could use to stop the shuttle and her crew from bringing her to the rest of the fleet.
She found what she was looking for just as Tallo entered the hold, catching her red-handed.
"Papa wanted me to see if you- Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
Zannah wrapped her hand around the grip of the blaster a split second before Tallo crashed into her, tackling her to the ground.
"You kriffing little thief!" the boy swore at her, trying to pin her to the ground and pull the weapon from her hand. He outweighed Zannah by thirty kilos, but she fought with a savage desperation that kept him from getting a firm grip on her as they wrestled on the floor.
Drawn by the sounds of their struggle, Bordon came running into the room.
"What the blazes is going on here!" he shouted.
In that exact instant the blaster discharged. It was impossible to say whose finger had been on the trigger; Tallo and Zannah were each clutching at the pistol with both hands in their efforts to wrest possession of it from the other. But through ill luck or dark fate, when the bolt was fired the barrel of the weapon was pointed squarely at Tallo. The impact left a gaping wound in the center of his chest, killing him instantly.
The young man's hands went limp and fell away from the blaster. His body toppled forward, pinning Zannah's legs beneath its weight. Across the room Bordon's eyes flew wide in horror. With a scream of anguish he lunged forward to help his son.
Seeing the father of the boy she had just killed rushing toward her, Zannah acted on instinct and fired the weapon again. The bolt caught Bordon just above the belt, cutting off his cry and knocking him to his knees. He let out a low grunt of pain as he clutched at the smoking hole in his gut, then reached a bloody hand out toward Zannah. She cried out in fear and disgust and fired again, ending Bordon's life.
"Bordon!" Irtanna's voice came over the shipboard intercom. "I heard blasterfire! What's happening back there?"
Moving quickly, Zannah squirmed out from under Tallo's corpse and ran up to the cockpit. She arrived to find Wend still harnassed into his passenger's seat, trying to turn around to see what was going on. Irtanna was just rising from her chair to go help Bordon. She'd had to engage the autopilot before she could leave her seat, and the delay had given Zannah the precious seconds she'd need to gain the upper hand.
"Sit back down and don't move!" Zannah shouted, pointing the blaster at Irtanna. Her voice sounded thin and hollow in the tight confines of the cockpit-the voice of a panicky child.
Irtanna hesitated, then obeyed.
"What happened?" the woman asked, her tone carefully neutral. "Is anybody hurt?"
"Plot a course for Onderon " Zannah ordered, refusing to answer the question. She could barely hear herself speak above the deafening thump of her racing heart.
"Okay," Irtanna said slowly, reaching up to punch the coordinates into the ship's command console. "I'll do what you want. Just stay calm." The ship's autonav chimed to acknowledge the new destination, and the woman half turned in her seat so she could look the young girl holding her hostage square in the eye. "Rain, put the blaster down." There was a cool self-assurance in her words, and a grim determination on her face.
"I'm not Rain," the girl retorted through clenched teeth. "My name is Zannah!"
"Whoever you are," Irtanna said, standing up slowly, "you're going to give me that blaster."
"Don't move or I'll shoot!" Zannah warned, her voice rising shrilly. How can she be so calm? she thought, even as she struggled to slow her own breathing down. She was the one with the blaster, but somehow she felt like she was losing control of the situation.
"No," the young woman replied calmly, taking a single step toward her. "You won't shoot me. You're not a killer."
The memory of the two dead Jedi back on Ruusan flashed through Zannah's mind, followed quickly by the image of Bordon and his son lying lifeless in the cargo hold.
"Yes, I am" she whispered as she pulled the trigger.
Irtanna managed a faint gasp of surprise, then collapsed to the ground-a quick and clean death. Zannah waited a second to confirm she was gone, then turned to point the blaster at Wend. He had watched the encounter unfold as if paralyzed, not even bothering to undo the buckle of his safety harness.
"Don't kill me!" he begged, squirming beneath the chair's restraints.
She could actually sense the fear emanating from him. She felt the familiar heat of the dark side flare to life within her, responding to the plight of her victim, feeding itself on his terror. It flowed through her like a wave of liquid fire, burning away her guilt and uncertainty and strengthening her resolve.
Zannah's mind was filled with a great and sudden realization: fear and pain were an inevitable part of existence. And it was far better to inflict them on others than to suffer them herself.
"Please don't shoot," Wend whimpered, making one last plea for his life. "I'm just a kid. Like you "
"I'm not a kid " Zannah said as she pulled the trigger. "I'm a Sith."